In former blogs I have mentioned we planned to visit the Australian Battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium this year, to honour our relatives, who fought there. Now we have done this, I will share with you some of our experiences.
Our tour was arranged with an Australian company and was fitted around other tours we planned, as we made the best of the opportunity of being in Britain and Europe in the summer.
We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, where we were joined by several other Australians booked on the Australian Battlefields Tour.
Our Tour Guide, Pete Smith, a former British serviceman, who now lives in France, knows the landscape and history intimately. Everyone on the tour had lost family members on these battlefields and Pete made a special effort to visit as many War Graves Cemeteries as possible, and locate the graves of the fallen soldiers belonging to the families. He also described all the battles and conditions in detail, so we could understand, and felt a connection to the places.
We all had a copy of an excellently researched and written book, Walking with the Anzacs- A Guide to the Australian Battlefields on the Western Front’ by Mat McLachlan. This was very helpful in not only giving background to the battles, but maps and other useful information of what was going on around the area, during the war. This helped us understand better what Pete was showing us.
The bus left Paris about 9 am and we headed northwards to the Belgium border. The sky was over-caste and the showers followed us throughout the morning, as we wove in and out of the heavy traffic.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Somme at Mont St Quentin. Here is a quote from the above mentioned book, “The attack on Mont St Quentin was considered by many to be the Australian’s greatest action in World War I. In three days, between 31 August and 2 September 1918, a handful of desperately under strength battalions captured one of the most formidable German defensive positions on the Western Front and took over 2600 prisoners.”
It was here that J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood lost their lives on the 1st and 2nd September 1918. I have written about these men in former blogs, however, to stand on the edge of the ‘Mont’ and have a clear view over looking the fields, that the Australians fought across in the half light of the morning of the 31st August 1918, was very moving. Directly behind us on the ‘Mont’ were the German trenches, still visible but half hidden in the wooded undergrowth.
A short distance away was the remnant of a defensive stone wall with an Australian mortar shell still embedded in it.
We were shocked how exposed and flat the terrain was, and still find it hard to believe what those brave Australians accomplished in those few days.
On the back of this hill is the village of St Quentin. Here the striking 2nd Division Memorial stands. This original memorial was unveiled on 30 August 1925, the seventh anniversary of the battle. The memorial now depicts a larger than life Australian soldier in full military kit standing astride, on a stone plinth. The Digger faces north-east, the direction of the Australian advance. This Digger figure is unique amongst the Australian Divisional Memorials, as the other four are identical stone obelisks. These we later visited on our tour. This was not the original sculpture. The first one, unveiled in 1925, was an Australian soldier bayoneting a German Eagle sprawled at his feet. German soldiers who occupied this area during World War II destroyed the sculpture leaving only the plinth. The present Digger sculpture was erected in 1971.
The memorial is surrounded by houses, but the adjacent tree-lined roadway is called the ‘Avenue des Australiens’.
There are a number of ‘story boards’ with photographs adjacent to the memorial. One struck a deep chord with us. It was of two soldiers carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier across the open battlefield, accompanied by a fourth man waving a white red cross flag, above his head on the end of a stick. The reason it effected us so much, was that it was taken the exact day James Joseph Stapleton was injured and was stretchered by two mates towards the field dressing station. However, the three of them were killed by shrapnel, when a ‘whiz-bang’ shell exploded in the air above them.
We will never know who the soldiers in this photo were, but it did give us a small window into the lives of the men on the battlefield.
We know the three soldiers who were killed, were buried in a shell hole close by where they fell, and crosses were erected soon afterwards.
There is a photograph of the original grave of J J Stapleton, which was sent to his mother, by the original Imperial War Graves Commission. It is in the possession another Stapleton descendant.
We also know from military records that their bodies were retrieved some two years later by the War Graves Commission, and were reburied in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.